I first heard the Scottish trio Young Fathers last summer after seeing a couple very positive reviews of their June release, TAPE TWO. Their dingy production, catchy melodies, and almost euphoric energy drew me in immediately. TAPE TWO, and its predecessor, TAPE ONE, seemed the product of some fortuitous lightning strike of creativity — a perfect mix of personalities and talents resulting in a band that had arrived with a unique sound, fully-formed.
As I’ve since learned, however, Alloysious Massaquoi, Graham Hastings, and Kayus Bankole — the three men who make up the group — have been creating music together for around a decade, and as Young Fathers for roughly half that time. In January 2009, The Scotsman published a story with the headline: “Meet the next big thing in hip-hop… the Young Fathers from Edinburgh.” The piece depicted three playful 20-year-olds riding the wave of a well-received single called “Straight Back On It,” a stripped-down party jam with a big, funky throwback chorus. Young Fathers toured the UK that spring, appeared at festivals over the summer, and along the way promised a soon-to-be-released debut album titled Inconceivable Child… Conceived.
Inconceivable Child may have been conceived, but it was never released. Rather, the next summer Young Fathers delivered the split single “Automatic” / “Dancing Mantaray,” a pair of upbeat tunes that straddled the line between hip-hop and boy-band pop. The end of 2010 brought a somewhat edgier single called “Fevers Worse” and hints of a forthcoming debut in the spring of 2011.
2011 was an important year for Young Fathers. A spring album did not materialize, but that year marked a change in the group’s sound — they recorded a caustic, rowdy track called “Effigy” (which showed up on a Friends of Friends compilation last year) and the music that became TAPE ONE, which was released as an online freebie that fall. In December, there was a new single — poppier than the stuff on TAPE ONE — called “Nothing Left (So Here’s a Beat),” which was said to be the first taste from their debut album, The Guide, to be released by their label Black Sugar in February 2012.
Instead, 2012 brought a positive review of TAPE ONE by Anthony Fantano of The Needle Drop and the subsequent attention of Shaun Koplow of Anticon, who signed the band to the label later that year. In January 2013, Anticon re-released TAPE ONE, and a new piece in The Scotsman was now asking: “Could this be a breakthrough year for Edinburgh hip-hop trio Young Fathers?” That summer brought the arrival of TAPE TWO (here’s where I came in), and in October, the group announced its forthcoming debut album, DEAD, to be released by Anticon in February 2014.
Well, here we are. It’s February 2014, and I’m happy to report that DEAD has in fact been released. After more than five years as Young Fathers, Massaquoi, Hastings, and Bankole are the proud new creators of an excellent full-length record.
Opening track “No Way” starts things off with the sound of a harmonium playing a simple four-chord progression, which is soon joined by a pounding beat and a wild, trilling chant. The harmonium gives way to an acerbic two-note synth pattern and a high-energy rapped verse from Bankole. The harmonium returns for a more restrained verse from Hastings, then Massaquoi jumps into the fray with a big, anthemic melody, singing: “AK-47 take my brethren straight to heaven.” “Dip,” another highlight, begins with a heavy, rumbling bass and a spoken-word verse from Massaquoi, followed by some soulful singing by Hastings (“You dip your fingers in the water/ You wonder what’s your punishment”). About a minute in, a loping beat takes the song in a different direction, as Bankole sing-speaks alongside a delicate organ figure.
Young Fathers’ production is handled by Hastings, who manages an arresting balance of pretty and abrasive. The track “Mmmh Mmmh” is a good example: it opens with a dense, brutal bass that slowly drifts from note to note, but it’s soon countered by a beautiful melody from a high-toned, wistful synth. “War” also opens with some menacing bass, along with a slashing verse from Bankole (“Big fish little pond/ More like a whale in the motherfucking ocean”), but it breaks out into a big, sing-along chorus, complemented by a childlike melody that may have been played on a toy xylophone. Speaking of war, a number of these songs sound like battlefields in miniature — I hear marching boots in the opening moments of “Am I Not Your Boy,” raining bombs and martial snares during the climax of “Low,” and clinking ordnance through the first half of “Mmmh Mmmh.”
As good as Hastings’ production is, however, it is Young Fathers’ vocals that make DEAD great. Massaquoi — who was born in Liberia but ended up in Edinburgh in the early 90s due to the first Liberian Civil War — has the smoothest tone of the three. He has a beautiful singing voice, perhaps best highlighted on “Low,” and a cool, deep rapping voice with a conspicuous Scottish accent, which you can hear well on the opening verse of “Get Up.” Bankole — who was born in Scotland, but grew up in Nigeria and the States before returning to Edinburgh as a teenager — has a grittier voice, which often takes on a Nigerian inflection, particularly on tracks like “No Way” and “Dip.” He is also probably the most unhinged and acrobatic vocalist of the group — he really lets loose a few times on DEAD, most notably on “Paying.” Hastings — who has lived in Edinburgh his whole life — often raps in a hushed, slightly sinister tone (as on his closing verses for “War” and “Get Up”), but he also has a rich, raspy singing voice. All three are strong, distinctive vocalists, and DEAD has some terrific moments of interplay between them: on “Just Another Bullet,” Massaquoi and Hastings do a kind of call-and-response during the first verse, with Bankole jumping in on every eighth line, and there is a wonderful instance during the climax of “Dip” where each member takes a turn rapping a few bars. Meanwhile, songs like “Am I Not Your Boy” and “Hangman” feature these big, ecstatic group choruses that make for some of the most transcendent moments on the record.
If you listen to DEAD, then go back and watch the videos for “Straight Back On It” and “Automatic;” it’s difficult to hear or see the connection. What happened to these guys? Well, for one thing, they’ve clearly grown up — their production and lyrics have gotten significantly darker and more mature. Another obvious difference is that Bankole and Massaquoi’s Africanness has become an important element of their music. But as I listen to their most recent releases and read interviews they’ve given over the years, I don’t get the sense that they calculatedly decided to go in this direction. It almost seems the opposite: like sometime in 2011 they stopped trying to capture some specific sound and instead stripped away the excess until they were only left with themselves. In short, they’ve arrived.